Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
“It seems so empty in here.”
“Usually not open this early. Too quiet on Monday mornings, but I promised your shoes would be ready.” He handed her the package.
ate Monday afternoon, Arcangelo and Beppe waited in the sitting room for Serafina.
“Nothing yesterday,” Beppe said. “Waited all morning, afternoon, evening. Shop closed. No sight of the shoemaker or his family.”
Serafina crossed her arms. “Of course. The shop’s closed on Sunday.”
“But this morning the cobbler and his son draped something over the windows and spread straw on the steps. About an hour later—”
“Less than that!” Beppe interrupted. “The shoemaker and his son left together—suited, both of them.”
“Perhaps a visit to the embalmer?”
They shook their heads. “Train station again. Returned a few minutes ago, walking swiftly, heads down, both of them.”
Serafina consulted her watch pin. “Afraid they’d be late for the wake. It begins in an hour.”
he evening of Ugo’s wake, the embalmer’s parlor was filled with dignitaries. It seemed as if the whole town had gathered, either to view the body or because Boffo had announced drinks on the house afterward.
Two carabinieri flanked the bier.
When Serafina saw Graziella seated in the corner with Teo and the baby, she walked over to pay her respects. She smiled at Teo, kissed Graziella on both cheeks. The poor woman gave her a lost smile, her eyes darting about the room while Serafina spoke words of comfort.
Excusing herself, Serafina and her sons stood in the line to greet Rodolfo.
“We can’t keep a cat in the house,” Vicenzu said. “And I caught Totò feeding it bits of tuna. Too much. I put it in the stable. Let it eat mice.”
“Whatever you say, dear.”
Carlo winked at his brother. “Dreaming.”
“Sicily bleeds,” Vicenzu muttered, “and we feed a cat.”
Serafina patted Vicenzu’s arm. “You’re right as usual. Just remember what we rehearsed.”
“Foolish, but if you insist.”
“What are you talking about?” Carlo asked.
“You’ll see. Shhh, not a word.”
Poor Vicenzu. She noticed a new stretch to the seams of his frock coat as he bent to hug the shoemaker, the way men do.
Carlo hugged Rodolfo, pecking both his cheeks and, as the eldest son should do, shook the shoemaker’s hand. “No more brothers, eh, Rodolfo? A pity.”
The shoemaker nodded.
Now it was Vicenzu’s turn to speak. Blast him, he just stood there, unmoving, the words they’d rehearsed sticking in his craw. He reached for breath, then all at once, said, “Rats all gone?”
“What?” Rodolfo’s face was the color of bleached wool. He took a step backward, bumped into his brother’s casket.
Vicenzu looked at Serafina, who shot him a soft elbow.
Her son pitched his bulk back and forth. “The arsenic you bought from us some years ago to kill the rats in your shop, did it work?”
Serafina watched the shoemaker’s face. As far as she was concerned, Vicenzu made a lurching start, but in the end, succeeded. His question had the effect on Rodolfo that she hoped it would. In her eyes, the shoemaker was guilty of his brother’s death.
“Are we going to Boffo’s?” Carlo asked on the way out.
“Not interested,” Serafina said.
As they walked home, she raised her chin to Vicenzu. “Thank you. A part well played.”
Carlo shook his head. “The shoemaker almost fainted. He knows you suspect him of having a part to play in Ugo’s death. Now I see his guilt. But a purchase of rat poison three years before the event proves nothing.”
“Of course not,” Vicenzu said. “And the ledger indicated the poison was sold to ‘The Pandolfina Family.’ Which Pandolfina family? There are dozens in Oltramari. Not like Papa to write so vague a notation.”
She turned to Vicenzu. “If I could find one more missing piece, I’d be satisfied. It won’t—”
Carlo interrupted. “You? Satisfied? Don’t believe her.”
She yanked Vicenzu’s sleeve. “I need your help. It won’t take long.”
Carlo held up his hands as if to ward off the devil. “Where have I heard that before?” Turning to his brother, he said, “Be careful. Her minutes creep like hours.”
After his involvement in the initial investigation and the capture of Abatti, she couldn’t blame Carlo. She looked at Vicenzu. “Ready for a little adventure?”
The three stopped, waiting for Vicenzu’s reply. Was that a nod and a wink from her son, the one who seldom smiled, Vicenzu, the one with the numbers and the abacus and the closed purse strings?
Vicenzu opened the gate. He bowed, gestured for Carlo to enter.
“The two of you are mad.” Carlo gave them a cursory wave.
hey crossed the piazza. There was a sliver of moon and no stars. Thankful for the evening’s dimness, she felt in her pockets for the candles she kept with her for late night deliveries.
Vicenzu limped beside her, his lumbering gait a familiar comfort. “When are you going to tell me what we’re doing?”
“Sorry, dear. We’re going to search the shoemaker’s shop for arsenic trioxide.”
Entering the public gardens, she felt the wings of a large bird graze her shoulder. It cackled and flapped its wings. She grabbed Vicenzu’s sleeve.
“Do we really need to do this?”
“Must satisfy myself that Rodolfo had the arsenic in his possession.”
“You’ll never have enough evidence unless he confesses.” Vicenzu pulled at his vest.
She was quiet.
“Are you sure you’re not making your task impossible because you don’t want to succeed?” he asked.
Serafina huddled inside her cape. She could see her breath. “A wild accusation!” But she knew he was right. How clever, this son of hers. Of course: she didn’t want the shoemaker to be guilty, so she had fooled herself, delayed, and made her task impossible.
She let her mind roam and they walked on. All at once, she pictured Rodolfo on the night of his son’s birth. When she opened the door to announce the newborn’s arrival, thunderous clapping. She scanned a sea of faces, but not finding the shoemaker’s, she asked after him. “Taking a walk!” someone yelled. Laughter. How long had he been gone? Was it enough time to drink with his brother? A few minutes later, he had rushed in, face flushed and looking confused, before placing coins in her palm.
Why had she forgotten his absence? In the wind, she heard the rustle of silk and her mother’s voice whispering, “To survive, we forget.”
And if Rodolfo confessed to hiring the killer of his brother, what then? He’d be guilty of murder and she would be to blame for the family’s misfortune. How would Graziella and her children survive without him? She fought the temptation to turn around and go home.
Darkness enveloped them like a cloak. She felt a frisson of fear like a creature crawling up the nape of her neck. They entered the alleyway behind the shoemaker’s stable.
She stopped. Cupping her hand around it, she held the candle steady while Vicenzu scratched the match against a cobble, waited for the flame to grow. The light it gave was weak but enough to show them the way. Somewhere a cat meowed.
Serafina’s fingers trembled as she felt for the gate. She tried the handle. “Locked!”
Vicenzu reached into his pocket, drew out a small knife, and knelt. In a moment, the latch snapped open. Swiftly she made her way up the path, Vicenzu limping softly behind.
They reached the shrubbery surrounding the back of the shoemaker’s store and peered inside. Pitch black. She hugged her sides.
Vicenzu took his time working the hasp. Finally the lock sprung and the door opened. They tiptoed inside.
“It’s got to be someplace in the back of the store.”
She held up the candle. A lone shoe stood on its side against the baseboards. On one wall hung cobbler’s tools and beneath them, a high bench that ran the width of the room. The top held cans of polish, candles, brushes, everything organized, like with like, into neat rows. Alongside was a folded leather apron. Teo’s apron. She touched it. Teo’s world. She blinked.
A cupboard took up most of the opposite wall. Serafina opened it and peered inside. A few hides hung from a pole near the top. The smell of leather was pungent. Above it was a small shelf, higher than Serafina’s head. As she rooted about for a stool to stand on, she heard a sound in the hall. Stopped. Held her breath.
What was it? The outside door scraped the floor!
She felt the rush of cool air as the latch clicked shut and, after a momentary hesitation, footsteps thudded toward them.
She sped over to Vicenzu who struggled with a jammed drawer and grabbed his sleeve. “Someone’s coming!”
He stopped. Beads of sweat rolled down his cheeks.
Footfalls grew louder.
She swallowed hard, feeling her head pound.
Vicenzu pulled her inside the cupboard and closed it just as the workroom door creaked open.
She felt a thickening in her throat, heard steps near the cupboard, the brush of wool.
She slowed her breathing, as if she were delivering and clung to Vicenzu.
But he gently pushed her aside. In one motion, he threw open the cupboard, rushed the intruder, and knocked him down.
He stooped, scooped up the figure by his lapels, and shook him. “You!”
“Came to help.” Carlo tried to wrench free. “I worried that you’d be caught. Put me down!”
“Did not. Scared us on purpose!”
“Boys! Put him down, Vicenzu.”
Carlo brushed the front of his coat. “Good thing I came, too. If the shoemaker and his wife had returned, they’d have caught you for sure.”
Carlo counted their foibles on his fingers as if he were a lawyer summing his case. “One, you left the gate unlatched. Two, from the alleyway, I saw candlelight flitting about inside. And three, passing the shrubbery, I heard frantic whispering from within. Ratty thieves, both of you. Next time, jump over the fence, wait until your eyes adjust to the dark, and keep your mouths shut. Found anything?”
They shook their heads.
“Then let’s search again.”
They rummaged through the room a second time, found nothing. About to leave, Carlo pointed to a tin box wedged between wall and workstation. He pried the lid. Inside was another small tin. He unscrewed it. “Doesn’t smell like—”
Vicenzu elbowed him. “Give it here. Anyway, arsenic trioxide has no smell, you clod. Breathe it and you die. Hope you got a big whiff.”
Carlo shoved him.
“Enough!” Serafina hissed.
“It seems like the stuff we sell.” Vicenzu replaced the lid. “About the right amount, too.”
Serafina’s heart sank. “Hand it over and let’s leave.”
On the way home, she thought of Graziella and her meager options. “What’s her specialness, I wonder. Does she sew? Launder? Cook?”
Vicenzu dragged his foot behind. “What are you whittering on about?”
“I’m wondering how Graziella will manage after Rodolfo’s locked up.”
“Skipping ahead, aren’t we?” Carlo asked.
“Be quiet and let me think.”
“Don’t like the sound of that, not at all.” Carlo grinned and slammed a fist into Vicenzu’s shoulder. Vicenzu picked him up by the back of his neck. “And what’s your ‘specialness’?” He spat the word.
Carlo swung his feet and arms about. “Walking on air!”
They laughed, scuffled some more.
“Can’t let yourself win, can you?” Vicenzu tugged at his vest. “Think a moment. Poor, suffering Graziella? She has Teo. He’s a goldmine.”
“Even Papa said he was special. Knew Teo. Liked him.”
Near their home, she stopped.
“Nothing, only that—”
“I hate it when you do that!” Carlo said.
But she held her tongue and walked on, realizing that Loffredo hadn’t told her
arsenical compound he’d found around Ugo’s lips, in the wine glass, and on the napkin. She must find out.
For the past week, she tried not to think of Loffredo and his unfortunate desire for her, but she had no choice. She simply must visit him at this late hour—she was running out of time. Why hadn’t he given her complete information about the arsenic? Perhaps he thought the information was too much for a woman to handle. Her nipples bristled. Thank the
she hadn’t gone to him last week. Such behavior was understandable in young men, but at his age? What right had he to ask her to compromise herself? Oh, it was all too much of a muddle, but before she had time to conclude her deliberations, they were at their front gate.
“I need to see Loffredo.”
“At this hour?” Carlo asked.
“Wipe that smile from your face. You, too, Vicenzu. This is business and cannot wait until tomorrow. I need to ask the medical examiner what compound he found around Ugo’s mouth. He neglected to tell me.”
Vicenzu winked at Carlo. “Probably too busy—”
She turned and walked away.
er cheeks burned by the time she arrived at Loffredo’s office. The windows were dark, the door locked and bolted, so she rounded the piazza and doubled back through empty side streets to his villa.
Seated in the parlor waiting for him, her eyes canted this way and that while she ran a hand through her hair and straightened her cape. Like a lovesick animal in spring, she told herself. Her stomach was in knots.
Gas jets hissed in wall sconces and a thick oriental carpet muffled her tread. The room was crowded with overstuffed furniture. Elena’s taste, of course. On the far wall, a fire burned in the hearth and in front of it, was a comfortable-looking love seat and two chairs. Off to one side stood a grand piano. Maria would adore it.
Bookcases lined one wall so she busied herself by running a finger over the spines and reading the titles of each volume. His tastes were eclectic. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Heraclitus were wedged between well-worn medical tomes. Interspersed with these were books by the moderns. Petrarch and Boccaccio sat next to Flaubert and Melville, and beside them, Leopardi, Cavour, and Amari. Strange, no Dickens.